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Guide to interpreting business school rankings

If you’ve ever tried searching for the “best business school in the world” or “the No.1 ranked MBA program” you’ll know that the results that pop up can be confusing. In any given year an array of publications and websites will publish their own rankings, often with different results and making reference to a bewildering array of acronyms (MBA, EMBA, Exec Ed, anyone?)

So how do you become a pro at navigating the confusing world of business school rankings and identify the information that’s actually useful?

To help shed some light on these common queries, we sat down with Elisa Simon, head of rankings at IESE Business School. Here she covers topics such as the pros and cons of rankings, why you should be cautious of looking at results in isolation, and how you can use them to help select the best business school for you.

Q. Are rankings important when deciding where to study?

Rankings can play an important part in figuring out where you want to study, chiefly by helping you narrow down your list of target schools and by giving you an overall sense of a school’s global standing and strengths.

Over the last 20 years, there has been an explosion in the number of institutions that provide MBAs or similar types of business programs around the world. In such a saturated market, how do you decide which schools to target?

A first step is to look only at accredited schools (those accredited by AACSB, AMBA or EQUIS.) Yet while this ensures a baseline level of quality, there are still a large number of accredited schools to sift through. That’s where the rankings can come in. The first business school rankings have been around since the year 2000 precisely to try to help make this decision-making process easier for prospective students.

The issue is that what a particular ranking may consider important for a business school may be different from what is important for you. That’s why it is crucial to know how to interpret ranking results correctly, and put them into a wider context.

Q. What are your tips for interpreting ranking results?

My five recommendations are:

  • Evaluate the source

Not all rankings are equal! It should raise alarm bells if you’ve never heard of the source publishing the ranking, and if there is little information on how the ranking was comprised (its methodology).

In general, the rankings most followed in the sector are from Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, the Financial Times and Forbes. And then there are important rankings for different geographical areas, such as US News and World Report for schools in the United States (schools outside the Unites States are not counted), or America Economía in South America, among others.

That doesn’t mean those are the best and you should disregard all others. But just like when you assess any other information, pay attention to the source of the information and how credible it is.

  • Check which program is being ranked. Most rankings measure schools based on the data available for their full-time MBA programs. If you are interested in studying another type of business program, then other rankings may be more relevant for you.

For example, each year the Financial Times and The Economist release separate Executive MBA (EMBA) rankings, which ranks part-time MBA programs. The Financial Times and America Economía also publish separate rankings for Executive Education (sometimes shortened to Exec Ed), which looks at the other types of non-degree programs business schools provide for professional development, such as advanced management programs, and long programs for functional managers.

  • Keep in mind your personal criteria for “best.” There is not a best ranking, there is only the best ranking for you. And that depends on what you are looking for from your business school experience.

If you’re a budding entrepreneur, focus on rankings that try to capture that feature. If you are interested only in return on investment, the bi-annual Forbes ranking might be a better place to start.

Where you can, look deeper into the data that comprises a ranking. For example, if you want a business school focused on sustainability and responsible business topics, you could look at how a school performs on the CSR criterion in the Financial Times rankings. If you’re keen to mix with diverse classmates and increase your international experience, look at metrics such as international course experience, the percentage of international students and faculty, and so on.

  • Don’t be blinded by numbers

Rankings encourage you to fit schools into certain arbitrary groups, such as the top 5 or the top 10. However, life is never that simple and neat. The statistical differences between schools are often small. For example, it could be that the performance of the top 17 programs in a ranking is statistically very close together, with a larger gap to the schools behind them. In that case, it would be more accurate to think of the top 17 schools as the top group, rather than the top 10.

  • Don’t look at results in isolation

Given the differences in methodologies and how small fluctuations in data can have a big impact on a school’s position in a ranking, don’t get caught up on any one ranking result. Instead, look at the overall trend of a school across various rankings in recent years. This is a much better way to gauge the strength and depth of a school.

Also remember that rankings can never and will never capture the full educational experience, so it would be a mistake to only focus on them. Instead, consider them just one part of your decision-making toolbox. Look at a few different rankings to get a sense of where a school stands in the sector and its potential strengths. Then, after you’ve built up this outline of what the school is like, get a fuller picture by speaking to alumni, visiting campus and asking for more details on the areas that interest you.

Criticisms of business school rankings

Q. Rankings are sometimes controversial. What is your take on the downside of rankings?

A general criticism is that they suggest simple comparisons can be made between all schools. Yet schools are often trying to do quite different things (a one-year MBA program and a two-year MBA program have different objectives for their students; an MBA program which largely places graduates in one or two geographical areas or industries has different goals than a program that aims to place them around the world).

Another criticism is that some of the methodology rankings use to measure schools is old and needs to be updated. Often, they are based on an idea of a particular kind of business school, and schools that do not fit this model are at a disadvantage. For example, in many rankings graduate salary data is heavily weighted. However, it is hard to know exactly the salary equivalents for graduates placed around the world. This means schools with a high level of global placements are at a disadvantage compared to others.

There are also issues of transparency. Not all schools participate in all rankings, and there may be queries over how data is gathered and assessed. Some rankings may list business schools based on public information that may not be accurate or available for all schools, while others may be more in-depth but lack the checks and audits of other rankings.

These criticisms are why it’s so important to know how to interpret ranking results correctly. After all, forewarned is forearmed!

How to choose the best business school for you

In the end, choosing where to study comes down to a variety of factors. Rankings play a part in that, but they should never be the be all and end all. Use them to gauge the level of a program and business school on the criteria important to you, always bearing in mind the importance of putting the results into context. Then speak to alumni, visit the campus and research further so you can really refine your list. Good luck!


Further resources:  IESE’s Rankings page 

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